Adopting at 55
Adopting at 55
By Joyce Maynard
Photo by Alex Tehrani
With three children safely grown, Joyce Maynard could have spent her time gardening, cooking and traveling through Italy. Instead, she went to Ethiopia and brought back new daughters and a new life
Not quite 90 minutes after getting off a plane from a 26-hour journey that has taken me over the North Pole and more than a few continents, I’m making my way through Addis Ababa in a broken-down taxi. The air is dusty and thick with heat and the overlapping cries of Muslim chants broadcasting from half a dozen mosques. The streets are filled with women, barefoot and reed thin, holding infants in their arms even as they hold their hands out for coins. My driver instructs me to roll up the window.
This is my welcome to Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries on the planet, where the number of children orphaned by AIDS reaches well beyond half a million. It’s easy to spot these kids; many live on the streets I am looking out at now. I have come to this place alone, knowing nobody, speaking only a few words of Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language. I am 55 years old, divorced for 20 years, with three grown children all long gone from home.
But the suitcase at my side is filled with small dresses and small sneakers and crayons and jump ropes and bubble-blowing solution, because I am headed to an orphanage outside town. Though I cannot take them home to California for at least six months, I am about to spend five days and nights with my two new daughters.
They’re sisters, ages estimated at nine and six. Their mother died of AIDS three years ago, and their father has relinquished them for adoption because he is HIV positive. But they’re healthy. The adoption agency has provided me with a photograph showing them standing in the cinder block yard of the orphanage. The older sister smiles a little warily, looking straight at the camera. Her arm is draped around the younger one in a gesture that tells me everything I need to know about what these two little girls mean to each other. The younger one smiles like someone who trusts that life will be good. Not that what either sister has known so far has been anything close to that.
Their names are Almaz, Amharic for diamond, and Birtukan, the word for orange. The color as well as the fruit. In the three months since I first laid eyes on their faces, I have probably taken this snapshot out of my purse a few hundred times. If it is not possible to actually love children solely on the basis of a photograph, this much is true: I know I will love them soon. The choice I’ve made to adopt is one that few of my over-50 friends would make—and one I wrestled with for more than a decade. I have no idea where I am headed or what my life will look like when I get there. I just know that once I put my arms around these two children—as I will within minutes—I’ll be embarking on an adventure that’s as challenging as launching a raft into Class 5 rapids but a lot longer lasting. Sink or swim, no turning back.
The idea of adopting older children from another part of the world has been lodged in my brain for a long time now. Even longer than I realized: A friend who recently read my first book—a memoir I published in college—reminded me that my 19-year-old self announced her intention to give birth to three children and adopt two more from someplace else.
The first three came to me young. More than a little out of step with so many of the women of my newly liberated generation—for whom it was career, not motherhood, that beckoned—I gave birth to my daughter shortly after my 24th birthday, followed first by one son and then, when I was 30, by another. I never said he was my last. Even after my marriage ended five years later, I held on to the expectation that someday I would make another relationship and that more children would be part of it.
I had plenty of relationships over the years, just none that endured. Meanwhile, as my daughter and sons grew up and went out into the world, I rediscovered my freedom. In place of the family minivan, I brought home a 25-year-old two-seater convertible. I found time for yoga classes and bought myself nice clothes after years of thrift-shop attire. My children were living full, productive lives—just what I’d wanted for them. Whole days went by, then weeks, during which I was not needed. This was thrilling and heartbreaking, both at once.
I love babies, but I realized I didn’t need another of my own. It wasn’t giving birth to children that I missed but raising them. And so my mind turned, increasingly, toward the dream of finding a child somewhere who needed a home. Still, my more practical friends, and my own loving children, reminded me of all the reasons that embarking on a second round of parenthood made no sense. I was always short of money, short of time. And short a partner. What they didn’t consider was that I’d been a single parent for decades. Nobody needed to tell me how hard it is to raise a child alone.
And still I couldn’t shake my dream of adoption. Nothing I had done in my life—not writing books or working on political campaigns or fixing up a home or building a garden and, truthfully, not any relationship with a man—had felt as rich and filled with meaning as the experience of raising my children. I would never stop being a parent to the three I’d given birth to, but I hated to think the life phase of doing what I love best might be behind me.
Many times over the years, I redid the math: If I adopt a six-year-old today, I’ll be 60 when she graduates from high school. Then 62, 65. I scribbled numbers on my yellow legal pad: how much it would cost for child care, insurance, food, clothes, two more tickets on every plane I ever boarded. (Conclusion: If I made this leap, I’d be staying home a lot more.) I thought about all the places I’d hoped to see in my life and about what it takes to pay for sneakers. Bikes. College education.
On the other side of the equation, I thought about what the prospects are for an orphaned child growing up in a developing country, and I considered what it was, of the things I’d provided for my three birth children, that mattered most in the end. Not expensive summer camps or music lessons or even braces. If they are now happy, healthy people—and I believe they are—they owe much of that to the security of having a home and a loving family. No price tag on those things. Still telling myself I was only fantasizing, I ordered an adoption-agency DVD in which orphaned and abandoned Ethiopian children—as many as five from a single family—sat before the camera to say their names, surely hoping that in their allotted 30 seconds they might catch some prospective parent’s eye. I told myself I’d look at this DVD only for a minute, but almost an hour later I was still sitting on the edge of my bed, transfixed, studying the face of each child.
But still I told myself I couldn’t possibly take on this kind of responsibility. (At my age.) I was supposed to be taking walking tours of Italy now. Going to yoga retreats and downsizing to low-maintenance condo living, not measuring the dimensions of my front hall to see if I could turn it into a second bedroom. This argument with myself went on for a long time—a dozen years or more. One night I was driving home from dinner with a friend who’d adopted a child from Guatemala. As she talked, an odd thought came to me: Imagine how stupid you’ll feel if you wake up at age 85 in great health. And you look back on age 55 and realize, “I could have adopted children after all.”
And so, after more than a decade of agonizing, I went online, found an agency willing to handle a single-parent adoption in Ethiopia and filled out the application. I had recently sold a novel for more money than I’d been paid in years, and for the first time in over a decade, I had money in the bank. But even as I assessed the rise in my fortunes, I did so with the awareness of how fleeting that kind of success is likely to be. I’d known enough flush times and lean ones to understand that money came and went. And that one day I’d also lose my looks, my seemingly boundless energy and maybe the ability to catch the eye of an attractive man and the audacity to Rollerblade. My name would be forgotten. So would bad reviews, and good ones. But loving a child is something that lasts. Long after all the rest is gone, that’s what endures.
The vast majority of my friends say they’d never make the choice I did, and I don’t fault them for having priorities different from mine. There are a million reasons a person shouldn’t take this on, and I could enumerate every one of them. And still land in the same place: no regrets. Whatever I have chosen to give up was less than what I’ve gotten back. Sitting in the after-school pickup line with the other parents—some young enough to be my children—I see the kids come running toward my 15-year-old Honda Civic, two little girls with their arms outstretched and their braids flying, calling “Mom!” In a minute they will bound into the backseat and tell me—though they are still learning to piece together enough English words—what happened in their day. Then they may start singing. Possibly “Doe a Deer.” Or one of their old songs, in Amharic, with lyrics that are mysterious to me but obviously filled with feeling. Or possibly just a single line they made up on the spot. Yesterday’s lyric was very simple. “Happy. Happy. Happy.”